Welcome to
Player Development Project.
Already a PDP Member?
Keen to join the community? About Membership

Brief Overview of Complex Systems in Sport Research and Practice


The Big Idea

A good example of Yiddish wit is the old parable, “Man plans, God laughs.”  By now this adage has not only achieved bumper sticker status, but the American hip hop group Public Enemy used it as the title of their 13th studio album (released July 16, 2015).  For our purposes then, it isn’t a stretch to connect this bit of wisdom to the world of sports.  After all, planning is at the root of most all preparation and performance in sport.  Is it possible that coaches and players alike can improve the odds against their plans going awry?

Complex Systems

There is a relatively new field of study that suggests there really is possibility of improvement in sport predictions and performances.  It is called complex systems.  And it is elbowing its way into the sciences-at-large.  Many of the research reviews previously published on the PDP website are papers loosely connected to this field.

At the root of complex systems is chaos theory.  You will recall that in chaos theory, initial and small changes in a system can cause a domino effect of tangled and wild differences in that system over time.  What makes complex systems complicated is this change of perspective.  Traditional research and practice is typically characterized by cause/effect linearity, mechanistic and repetitive designs, and reductive thinking.  Sports are broken down into parts, either for study or practice, with little attention given to the extent to which the parts as parts resemble the whole.

A complex system perspective takes the parts collectively as self-organizing wholes.  The components of these wholes themselves have common characteristics.  These characteristics are nonlinear, spontaneously ordered, dynamical, synergistic, and patterned.  Unpredictability is the norm.  Learning to experience such unpredictability and to participate with and within it, paradoxically improves the odds that game plans and game play will not go awry.  This is because the preparation design is based on unpredictability and the constraints of the playing itself.

An Illustrative Abstract

Of interest to our PDP readers would be the work of a relatively new research group who identify as proponents of “Complex Systems in Sport.”  Some help in translating the meaning of a complex systems approach to our fields of interest is provided by this research group on their website:  http://www.complexsystemsinsport.com

Below you will find an abstract of an abstract to give an example of taking a complex systems approach to understanding one universal facet of sports: injuries.  This abstract was one of around 100 abstracted papers presented on October 5 and 6 , 2017 in Barcelona at an international congress on the theme of: Complex Systems in Sport: Linking Theory and Practice.

A complex-system approach to sports injury prediction and prevention: looking into muscle injuries in footballS. Fonseca, J. Ocarino, T. Souza, R, Resende, and N. Bittencourt

Who would think that there is any application of complex system theory to the prediction and prevention of sports injuries?  Well, these researchers demonstrate that sports injuries are indeed complex problems.  They do not see prediction and prevention of sports injuries as a problem of isolating risk factors.  Instead, they argue that sports injuries present a “web of interacting determinants in their genesis.”  These determinants are multi-level.  Injuries emerge.  They are not simply the contribution or result of isolated factors.

To these researchers, since sports injuries are “complex emergent phenomena,” the interactions between different units produce risk profiles of the emerging injuries.  They do not look for factors (the parts), but instead for patterns of interactions among risk factors (the wholes).  These risk profiles are derived from non-linear interactions of risk factors from different perspectives, and include such possibilities as biomechanics, training schema, environmental influences, and both psychological and physiological data.

In one model, the researchers analyzed muscle injuries of 102 young football (soccer) players by demonstrating the complex problem of muscle injuries in sports.  They found that “factors related to strength, flexibility, core stability, and musculoskeletal system architecture interacted in different ways to produce distinct risk or protective profiles for muscle injuries.”

In another model, they looked at the specific profiles of 115 young football players with hamstring injuries.  Once again, factors related to strength, flexibility, and core stability were found to interact to produce identifiable risk profiles.  They also noted that the athletes with previous hamstring injuries had distinct profiles from those without previous injuries.

Their conclusion was that risk profiles can in fact tell us something about the probability of injury occurrences even if we do not have a full understanding of the complex patterns of risk factors associated with the injury.  By adopting a complex system approach, we may be able to help create methods to predict and prevent sports injuries.  After all, it is the athlete not the disease/injury we should care about.

So What?

Let’s return to the Yiddish parable, Man plans, God laughs.  If we understand the big idea of complex systems, and if we were to adopt a complex system approach to planning in the context of sport practice and performance, doesn’t the planning itself emerge or unfold in the midst of playing?  There is not a plan to carry out.  We are carried out by our serendipitous and continuous planning.  Now, God may hoot down this idea still.  But if we are as a result less frustrated and disappointed by making plans that go awry, maybe in the end Man might have the last laugh.